Despite their common name, sago palms (Cycas revoluta) technically aren't true palm trees at all. These fairly low-growing plants with long green fronds are actually cycads, a group of ancient tropical and subtropical plants that usually grow from a trunk that doesn't branch and produce seeds but don't flower or fruit. Sago palms are native to warm parts of Japan, and in cooler climates they're often grown as houseplants. They're best planted in the early spring or late fall. These plants are extremely slow-growing and often put out only one new frond each year, with the feather-like foliage growing in a symmetrical ring. They generally grow larger when planted in the ground versus when they're in containers.
|Botanical Name||Cycas revoluta|
|Common Name||Sago palm, king sago, cycad, Japanese sago|
|Plant Type||Perennial shrub|
|Mature Size||3 to 10 feet tall and wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Sandy, humusy, medium moisture, well-draining|
|Soil pH||5.5 to 6.5|
|Hardiness Zones||9 to 10|
Watch Now: How to Grow and Care for a Sago Palm
Sago Palm Care
Sago palms are not difficult to grow and maintain, but they do require some specific growing conditions. They appreciate a warm and bright environment, though harsh sunlight can damage the foliage. They also like humidity, which can be raised for indoor plants by misting them regularly with clean water from a spray bottle. You also can place the plant container on a tray filled with water and pebbles, as long as the bottom of the pot isn’t touching the water (which can cause root rot).
These plants are sensitive to overwatering and poorly drained soil. So make sure the soil surface dries out in between waterings. And choose a pot with ample drainage holes for container plantings. Many gardeners prefer to use unglazed terra cotta pots because any excess soil moisture can evaporate through the material.
Sago palms prefer bright, indirect light. Avoid placing them in direct sunlight, especially hot afternoon sun in the summertime. This can wilt and burn the foliage. However, too much shade can result in sparse foliage and an overall unhealthy plant. When grown indoors, choose a bright east-, west-, or south-facing window. Indoor plants can be moved outside in warm weather, as long as the container is placed in dappled sunlight.
Sago palms aren't overly picky about their soil, as long as it has good drainage. A sandy soil that's somewhat rich in organic matter and has a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH is ideal. For container plants, a potting mix made for palms should be suitable.
Sago palms have some drought tolerance, but they prefer a moderate amount of moisture in the soil. Water whenever the soil feels dry to the touch, making sure never to overwater to the point of soggy soil. Slightly reduce watering in the winter when the plant is not actively growing.
Temperature and Humidity
These plants love warm, humid conditions, though they can briefly tolerate cold temperatures. However, frost can damage the foliage, and temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit will likely kill the plant. When grown indoors, protect your sago palm from drafts and airflow from heating and air-conditioning vents, which can cause extreme temperature fluctuations that can be damaging to the plant.
For optimal plant health, fertilize monthly throughout the growing season (spring to fall) with a liquid fertilizer. Or use a slow-release fertilizer two to three times during the growing season, following package instructions.
Toxicity of Sago Palms
All parts of the sago palm are toxic to humans and animals when ingested, but the seeds (nuts) are the most toxic part. If you have small children or pets, take care to keep this plant away from them. Some symptoms of toxicity for both humans and animals include excessive drooling, vomiting, abdominal pain, lethargy, seizures, and even death. Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect sago palm toxicity, as even a small amount ingested can be serious.
Common Pests and Diseases
Sago palms don't have serious issues with pests or diseases. But scale and spider mites can become problematic. Look out for foliage damage or discoloration, as well as tiny bugs along the fronds. Aim to use a natural insecticide before turning to harsher chemicals, and make sure your plant has enough humidity and airflow.
Propagating Sago Palms
Palm propagation is typically done by seeds. But this process can be time-consuming and often not effective, so many home gardeners choose not to attempt it. You also can propagate sago palms by division. When grown under ideal conditions, sago palms might send up clusters of new plants around their base. These baby plants can be removed from the parent plant by cutting them at the trunk with a sharp knife or scissors, leaving as many roots attached as possible. Then, place them in the shade for a few days to let the cut heal over before potting them in the same type of soil you used for the parent plant.
Potting and Repotting
Because they grow so slowly, sago palms only need repotting about every three years. However, every spring, it's a good idea to gently remove the plant from its pot and replace the loose soil with fresh soil to ensure continued healthy growth.
Varieties of Sago Palms
There are other plants that use the common name of sago palm, though Cycas revoluta is the one that’s most widely cultivated. The other species include:
- Queen sago palm (Cycas rumphii): This plant grows more like a tree than a shrub, reaching around 15 feet tall.
- Queen sago palm (Cycas circinalis): This plant also is tree-like, reaching around 10 feet tall, and is native to India.
- True sago palm (Metroxylon sagu): Unlike Cycas revoluta, this plant is a true palm that’s part of the botanical family that contains other popular palm trees.
Ferguson, D, Crowe, M, McLaughlin, L, Gaschen, F. Survival and Prognostic Indicators for Cycad Intoxication in Dogs. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 25, 4, 831-837, 2011, doi:10.1111/j.1939-1676.2011.00755.x